There are two distinct roots of the words `olive` and `oil` which reveal their geographical origin and dissemination. On the one hand, our word `oil` can be traced as far back as Cretan elaiwa and Semitic ulu, becoming oleum in Latin and oli in Romance languages. On the other hand, the Spanish word for oil, aceite, has a separate root in the Hebrew zait, which became zaitum in Arabic: az-Zait, to the Moorish invaders of Spain meant `juice of the olive`. Both roots reflect the spread of the olive from east to west, coinciding with the expansion of trade, culture and civilization along the European and African shores of the Mediterranean.
The ancient world
Olive oil has been the traditional fat of the Mediterranean tor at least 4000 years, possibly as many as 6000. Alongside wheat and the vine, it has been one of the three staples of Mediterranean societies for as long as communities have lived settled - as opposed to nomadic, hunter-gathering - existences. It is thought to have been cultivated first as a result of breeding experiments with the native thorny wild olive, perhaps in Persia, or in the Phoenician Levant in what are today Syria and Lebanon, and was well known by the ancient Egyptians. All the major civilizations of the Mediterranean have played a part in the dissemination of the olive throughout the region: Egyptians, Phoenicians (who were probably responsible for its introduction into Iberia, as the place name Cordoba, derived from the Phoenician word for olive press, corteb, would suggest), Cretans, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs.
While cultivation of the tree was spreading, economic trade between nations promoted the planting of more trees. Olive oil came to assume enormous importance in Rome and was a factor that motivated warring and subjugated nations to embrace peace. On the one hand, Rome needed to import large supplies of oil and wheat from its colonies to feed its citizens, and the oil was also in great demand as an ointment, to be used by citizens at the baths and by athletes at the games. On the other hand, the colonized nations saw that their peace, prosperity and stability lay in meeting this demand. That the olive branch is an ancient symbol of peace is not very surprising. As it takes between five and ten years after planting for the tree to bear adequate fruit, a peaceful co-existence was vital to ensure a return on the grower`s investment and a continuous supply of oil.
In a second westerly expansion, this time to the New World, the Iberian conquistadors established the olive in the Caribbean, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and California, where it flourishes in the favourable climate. The tree grows anywhere in the world where there is a Mediterranean climate, including South Africa and parts of Australia.